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Digital project rescues newspapers from antiquity

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by Michael J. Mika
Special to Delaware Business Times

Chronicling-AmericaEver wonder how Delaware reacted on Election Night 1878 when Democrats won all the races in New Castle County? Or how U.S. newspapers reported about the early days of the DuPont Co.?

It is now easier to research these topics, thanks to an ongoing Library of Congress project to digitize America’s newspapers and display them in a free online database.

After 10 months of research, University of Delaware librarians have added the first batch of Delaware newspapers – about 10,000 pages – to Chronicling America, a searchable, national web site.

Gregg Silvis, associate librarian for Information Technologies and Digital Initiatives at UD’s Morris Library, leads the project team.

“The Delaware Digital Newspaper Project is important to the citizens of Delaware because it provides free, online access to the historic newspapers that document the growth and change of the religious, social, political and economic factors that have shaped the history of Delaware, the first state,” Silvis said.

The UD team is duplicating, scanning and digitizing more than 120 microfilm reels from 66 publishing titles that served Delaware between 1836 and 1922.  The first two Delaware titles – Wilmington Gazette which became The Daily Gazette (1880-1884) – are now included.

Mary Durio, who oversees the university’s Center for Digital Collections, directs a small staff in the task of calling up pages from the master microfilm, creating an updated microfilm negative as well as digital photos, PDF with hidden text, an OCR text file and metadata or topic terms – so it can be searched online.  A newspaper history essay for each newspaper title is included.

“Some of the microfilm is very old and has to be handled carefully,” Durio said, adding that the quality of the film depends on the quality of the original copy, but now it is searchable, which is an improvement.

By next August, 60,000 pages from 66 historic Delaware newspapers published between 1836 and 1922 will be available for researchers. So far, 43 states are currently digitizing content from stored microfilm and sending to the website.

Silvis said the library will continue to house both the master microfilm it has as well as the new 2016 upgraded microfilm it creates in its archives.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and Library of Congress launched the National Digital Newspaper Program in 1998 to create an online historic newspaper database.  NEH awarded UD a $121,907 grant for the project. Each year, NEH issues more grants to states that submit requests to participate.

An advisory board of UD faculty, representatives from the state of Delaware Division of Libraries and the Delaware Public Archives helped select which Delaware newspapers to include.

Besides Delaware topics of interest, historic and current events of the day include: Lizzie Borden (1892-1893), stories about Mark Twain (1878-1921) details about tuberculosis (1882-192) and the start of the Ping-Pong craze (1900-1902).

The national site now has digitized images of 11,120,562 pages from 2,007 newspapers from the United States and its territories and continues to update daily. (Remember, many of the first newspaper editions were only two or four pages.)

According to the NEH, anything published before 1923 is in the public domain. But, from 1923 to 1963, materials fell into the public domain only if their publishers did not renew their copyrights. Last month, NEH expanded the project, allowing partners to digitize historic newspapers to 1963, if they can get rights from the newspaper publisher.

Silvis’ team only has grant funds to digitize through 1922, and although copyright concerns limited the scope of the project, Silvis says, “imperfect access is better than no access.”

Michael MaLoon, vice president of innovation at the Newspaper Association of America, agrees, noting that the project is “huge step forward to provide information quickly to researchers.”

Nathan Yarasavage, digital project specialist for Library of Congress, shared updates about the project last month in a public forum at the university.  He believes genealogists, educators and historians will be among the site’s most frequent visitors.

User surveys show family names and genealogical terms (such as “obituary”) are frequently the top search terms used on the site.

Microfilm has not gone the way of the floppy disc, because according to Information Today newsletter, it can last more than 500 years if it is stored under the correct temperature and humidity conditions, making it the best archival medium available. Digital data actually degrades due to bit rot, the deterioration of electronic programs or files after a period of no usage.

The digital services of Morris Library are also adding other new resources for citizens according to Molly Olne-Zine, senior associate librarian. This fall, UD Space, the library’s institutional repository, will include searchable PDFs of historic documents from the General Assembly sessions.

“The information contained within them includes voting records, bill sponsors, and the date the bill was signed into law by the governor,” she said. “The dates for the House Journals are 1839 to 1971 (some gaps), and for the Senate Journals we have 1852 to 1923 (some gaps).”

The documents will not be microfilmed, but available as PDFs.

For more information about Delaware’s involvement with the digital newspaper project, visit the DDNP blog/website, the DDNP Title listUDSpace and UD Library Digital Collections.

Chronicling America is produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program, a partnership between NEH, the Library of Congress, and state partners. The Library of Congress makes this content freely available to the public and permanently maintains the digital information.

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